Can Leites justify opportunity of lifetime?
The late Admiral James Stockdale once said during a 1992 vice presidential debate with Al Gore and Dan Quayle: "Who am I? Why am I here?"
It's kind of the same question Thales Leites has been answering lately as well. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the top mixed martial arts promoter in the world, but Leites has an even more anonymous profile than H. Ross Perot's first running mate.
Leites is answering that question a lot these days, though not because he's an unaccomplished fighter. He's won five in a row in UFC competition, a pretty significant achievement given that the promotional record is eight.
The problem for Leites is that his opponent at UFC 97 on Saturday at the Bell Centre in Montreal is Anderson Silva. Silva is not only the UFC's middleweight champion and not only the co-holder of the UFC record with eight straight wins. He's also the man regarded by many as the best fighter in the world.
Silva isn't simply squeaking out wins – as Leites did in his biggest fight, a disputed split decision win over Nate Marquardt at UFC 85 in London. He's sending his opponents to the hospital with all manner of ailments.
Leites may be a virtual unknown as UFC fighters go, and he may be a huge underdog. But he knows that underdogs have won before.
Matt Serra once knocked out Georges St. Pierre to win the UFC's welterweight title. Keith Jardine defeated Chuck Liddell in a light heavyweight fight in which many in the media were wondering why the UFC was feeding Liddell such easy opposition.
Leites is getting much the same treatment these days as Serra and Jardine were. Silva, though, knows as well as anyone how dangerous Leites can be.
"He's very well-rounded and he's very good on the ground," Silva said.
Leites' one advantage in the fight will be his jiu-jitsu superiority over Silva. Though Silva is a black belt, Leites is among the finest jujitsu specialists in the sport. He earned a black belt under Welton Ribeiro in just four years.
UFC president Dana White has frequently referred to Silva as a "stone-cold killer" as a way of paying homage to his lethal striking ability. Leites, though, is as proficient at jujitsu as Silva is on his feet.
And that's ultimately his chance to deny Silva a shot at history. A Silva win would mark his ninth straight in UFC action – which would break a tie with Jon Fitch and Royce Grace for the most ever. It would also be his sixth successful title defense, which would also be a record.
Leites has developed great respect for his fellow Brazilian's accomplishments, but he gives a very clear feeling that while he's respectful, he's hardly intimidated. "This is going to be a very explosive fight," Leites said. "I'm an Anderson fan because he looks for the knockout every single time. And I like looking for the submission every single time, so this will be a very interesting fight."
Perhaps, but Leites is still dogged by the question of how he got the fight instead of others perceived to be ahead of him. He seems to be behind men such as Yushin Okami, Dan Henderson, Demian Maia and Michael Bisping in the pecking order, perplexing some who wonder what he did to leapfrog them.
The win over Marquardt clearly carried a lot of weight, but he only took a split decision despite the fact that Marquardt was docked two points in the fight. Silva, who watched Leites submit Drew McFedries in little more than 90 seconds in UFC 90, has no doubt that Leites is deserving of the shot.
"Thales Leites has obviously shown through his performance and (proven) to the world that he deserves the title shot," Silva said. "Thales Leites is a very tough fighter."
Leites is used to hearing the doubts. He's 14-1 in his MMA career and is 5-1 in the UFC, but he still has to fight for respect.
When he was 8-0, he was pitted against highly respected striker Jose Landi-Jons, who has wins over Pat Miletich and former UFC champion Matt Hughes. Not many gave Leites a chance, but Leites won by arm triangle in just two minutes, 40 seconds.
Nobody is predicting he'll have such an easy time with Silva – not even Leites. But Leites is convinced he belongs, and that he's going to win.
"Anderson Silva is a great fighter and everyone knows that," Leites said. "And everyone has seen him for so long and they're so familiar with him, maybe that is why [they don't give me a chance]. They don't know me so well, so I have to make my point in this fight. And I truly believe that the way I've prepared and the way I've trained – I've sacrificed a lot, for three or four months – that it will pay off [on Saturday]."
It will pay off if he's somehow able to turn it into a grappling contest. This, though, is an MMA fight and not a grappling contest.
And it seems pretty clear that after the fight, we'll be asking at least one of the questions that Admiral Stockdale posed at the debate in 1992: Why was he here?